FLOHIO: “I’m quite alternative and the UK don’t show love to alternative artists”

A South London rapper who's finally getting her dues

It takes a confident character to command a space with mere presence. Yet Flohio is able to do so both physically and in her music, personifying her 2018 track ‘Bop Thru’ as we rendezvous in the depths of Peckham, South London. Her debut album is a month shy of release at the time, and her exuberance circles around the room.

There is no method to Flohio’s madness. One day she is collaborating with Mike Skinner of The Streets, the next she’s laying vocals on a Clams Casino beat. Belligerent flows, gaudy production and assured bars are staples of her malleable style, donned like a trench coat with countless pockets. Since 2016, she’s made instant impressions while working with like-minded individuals, making the BBC Sound of 2019 shortlist and performing on festival stages across the world. And the more you understand Flohio’s mentality, the more her young career makes sense.

Moving to Bermondsey, South London from Lagos, Nigeria at the age of nine, she had no problems adapting. “As a young kid coming into a new place, you just sit back and absorb everything,” she says. “You know when you’re just yourself and you don’t judge anybody else? Everyone just messes with that. It’s when you’re trying to be like other people and being a nuisance, then things become hard for you in life. I was always me and people came into my world.”

The new home embraced a young Flohio, born Funmi Ohiosumah, who instantly assimilated into a community defined by its schools, youth clubs and corner shops. “Bermondsey made me feel warm and comfortable,” she says. “I can go anywhere with a blindfold on and know my ends.” It’s no wonder Flo takes any opportunity she can to reference her postcode, SE16, including it in the title of one of her earliest collaborations with British production duo God Colony. 

A relaxed household aided teenage liberation, growing up with a tight support bubble that allowed her to explore options of sports and graphic design before settling on music at the age of 14. “I’m a late bloomer, but even then I was told to do whatever I do to the best of my ability.”

Like many U.K. rappers growing up in the 2000s, Flohio’s eyes and ears were set on the hip hop trailblazers across the pond, introduced to the genre by 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’. “It was just in my house,” she says. “I don’t know who dropped it, one of my cousins or whatever. I played it, said ‘This is crazy’, and thought it felt so cool.” She describes the iconic album cover – the gunshot effect across the abdominal; a symbolic triad of 50’s near-death escape, gangsta rap persona and hip hop breakthrough. “This was me already being into the culture, and then watching the movie on top of it made me love 50 Cent.” She references Eve’s Eve-Olution as another formative album, which preceded her cascade of interest in Lil Wayne’s rise. It’s artists like these that resonated with Flohio and made her want to put an album together. But she first believed her career was going somewhere when she received her first write-up in 2015. “Before my first article, I was already taking things seri–,” she begins before she humorously ends that thought. “I lied, I didn’t take it seriously at all. I was going to say I did but I was still working and doing my internships, so I wasn’t ready to quit [and pursue music full-time]. But it was so good to start going to the studio everyday and trying to figure this shit out.” Those studio sessions came alongside dozens of open mics and encouragement from her circle; an organic process that led to becoming labelmates with Little Simz.

Although Flohio grew up around the height of grime’s second reign, that’s not the kind of music she makes, even if her music has been regularly mislabelled as grime by the media. “I don’t know why people place me in grime,” she says candidly. I express the same sentiment to her, noting how her 2020 debut mixtape No Panic No Pain leans on a palette of industrial hip hop, trap and electronic. Upon me referencing her likeness to M.I.A., she immediately extends her fist out for a spud, appreciating the comparison that’s only been made for the second time in her career. “She’s somebody that is on my list to work with one day,” she says, prepared for the range of experimentation that could be achieved.

Flohio’s creative process involves much deliberation with close collaborators Speech and God Colony, handlers of the production duties for her debut album, Out of Heart. From fifty recorded songs, a lean twelve tracks made the final cut, which speaks to Flo’s selective nature when approaching both what sounds to explore and her album curation. “It’s easy to make what everyone else is making, but it’s not what I’m feeling. That’s why I don’t like people sending me beats. I’m like, ‘It’s cool’, but I need to build from scratch so I can be more free. We just don’t know where the sound is going to go and that’s how I like it.”

Mood fluctuates throughout our day-to-day lives and Flohio expresses this throughout her debut. Tracks such as ‘Cuddy Buddy’ and ‘Peace of Mind’ inhabit the trenches of solitude, which lay a stark contrast to the ’80s disco opener, ‘SPF’. “I have this whole Teletubby kind of shit, but then it goes into dark, evil Barney by the end,” she explains, using the childrens’ television characters to highlight the album’s range in tunes. One of the last tracks to make the cut was ‘Grace’, which was reworked after visiting her auntie in Nigeria who later passed away from cancer. “I brought people into my mind with some of these songs. Don’t ask me to smile, there’s nothing good on this side right now. So I went into the studio, deleted the first verse and recorded a new one, then felt like it was ready.”

In the age of streaming, lines between the classification of full-length projects are constantly blurred. With this in mind, I ask Flo what the difference is between a mixtape and an album. “The difference is the honesty,” she says. “With a mixtape, you’re being more playful and showing your fun side. But with an album, you’re being truthful. It’s what people use to define you, so there’s almost no room for tomfoolery. You can say what you really mean.” 

The whole concept of mixtape versus album parades our conversation as hip hop purists. Labelling matters to Flohio when it comes to projects, which is why critics dubbing No Panic No Pain as an album disturbed the spirit of her artistry. “That put me off reading reviews. I made it casually during lockdown in my bedroom. So I just carried on releasing music and taking thoughts from my fans rather than these critics because you don’t get it. You don’t follow the sound, you follow the other critics.”

To me, Flohio takes risks in her music, pushing the boundaries of UK rap into new territories. But she challenges that point of view. “I don’t see my music as a risk. I don’t think about the sounds I create as being different. It’s just natural for me.” Risk is a concept we explore enough to mould into a philosophical debate, expanding beyond her own scope into the UK scene in general. “I would like to think everybody’s taking risks,” she says. “Even if you might think the artist is not brazen enough, it’s still a risk for them to go to that studio and put that song out. I know some people would say, ‘Oh man, you didn’t even try’, but that’s them trying and taking a risk.”

So if the sound is not a risk, what aspect of Flohio’s music is? “The risk part for me is releasing the songs,” she admits. “I release a song then I’m not online for two days. I will let it do its thing then come and see it later.” 

So the anxiety lies not within the studio, but in the reception and success of the material? 

“I’m in my element when I’m creating the songs,” she says. “I just want to get a banging hook and a nice verse – that’s my risk.” At the same time, Flo is conscious of the elements that stray away from the fundamentals of the mainstream. “I just know there’s an audience for this kind of thing,” she calmly states. “Not everyone wants the same shit. That’s the reward in my mind, knowing I’m not the only one with this mindset. There’s also the producers I’m creating this with. We’re all on the same page, and if that’s the vibe of us here there’s going to be 5,000 people out there on the same drums.”

Back in the day, Flohio could run trials of her music to all her friends. But she acknowledges life can be consuming. “We’re not young anymore. Of course when we were all younger, everyone would come with me to the shoots, everyone would be at the shows. We had time. But they have kids and stuff like that so it’s hard to catch them now.” In turn, it’s taught her to trust her instincts more, rather than seeking external approval for her music. Hence why after releasing a few EPs and one mixtape, Flo feels ready to swim to the deep end. “A lot of people said I could have released it [Out of Heart] two or three years ago. But I’m happy I did it now. I’ve learnt so much with my voice.”

After Out of Heart, an album with a single guest appearance, Flohio intends to branch out and collaborate with more peers in the UK scene. “Kwengface is someone I would like to work with,” she states, admiring the output of the South London drill star. “Why would you want to hear me on drill?” she asks. “I’m no driller. I’d bring him into my world instead.”

Naturally, we circle back to the concept of risk. Flohio is receptive to the notion of her left-field tendencies, and she passionately raises the issues that are holding back alternative rappers from thriving in UK rap. She mentions peers that she admires, such as A2, Bakar and Little Simz, the last of whom took several years to receive her accolades. “I’m quite alternative and the UK don’t show love to alternative artists,” she says. “They kind of put us on back burners. I think we just need a solid platform. That’s why artists like A2 aren’t flourishing the way they should be. We just don’t have that network. No one wants to take the risk. And I think the risk is so rewarding.” But Flo is ready to take action. “That’s my aim,” she affirms. “To create that platform sometime in the future, or be part of the people that open up that platform.” 

As we wrap up our conversation, I ponder what her interpretation of an individual’s prime is, to which Flo has an answer locked and loaded. “You reach your prime when you reach your goals. I want to get into fashion and food. I want to create my own stuff, walk on runways and add more of me to the industry.” Her eyes gleam with the ambitions held outside a solo career, ready to ascend beyond the jurisdiction of a futuristic, groundbreaking artist.